Being seen by others

GwaiGwai Epiphanies Host
We have been having a long discussion about whether sci-fi and fantasy portray women well or not. I think that can be applied to other traits too. How is the portrayal of race, disability, or queerness done when written by others. Does anyone who is not a straight white able male see themselves portrayed well in most fiction?
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  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    Add ‘past middle age’ to your list and that fully enumerates my disqualifications for answering your question.

    But I am interested to know how the answer might vary according to where on a spectrum between ‘plot driven’ and ‘character driven’ a work might fall.

    My impression of some genres, of which SF is one, is that they have a tendency to be more plot driven, and therefore less dependant in well-drawn characters resulting in a greater tendency towards stereotyping.
  • Gwai wrote: »
    Does anyone who is not a straight white able male see themselves portrayed well in most fiction?

    Marilynne Robinson does a great job on straight, white, able-ish (but old - Hi Bro James!) Rev Ames. She's a great writer. In my mind, people who can write, or act, or paint, or play music, in multiple modes - are great, versatile artists with huge imaginative / creative power and mighty technical skills in crafting the work. Some folks (Michael Caine, BB King) sound like themselves, which is fine if you like what they do. Doing 'other' seems to me to be one side of being a great artist; most of us struggle to do 'myself' authentically.
  • GwaiGwai Epiphanies Host
    Don't worry, @BroJames, your body will probably deteriorate eventually allowing you to answer the question then ;).

    I definitely agree though that it matters tons less in more plot-driven works. If I'm reading for the plot, I don't care very much whether the characters are realistic. Speaking of which, wish-fulfillment fiction that also counts. I'm sure many people imagine they might be as suave and savvy Bond whether or not that is realistic.

    It's also about having multiple points of view. As a Caucasian person, I think N.K. Jemisin, who is African American, portrays white people* in the Broken Earth trilogy who are very right. It's a negative view of us and it's not a complete view, but nothing is complete and it's accurate. I know those people she talks about even if I don't identify with them. They are very real and not usually portrayed that way.

    *metaphorical, but the metaphor is very clear
  • I can't answer Gwai's question, due to all the disqualifications.

    I am aware, however, of the importance of allowing the reader to see themselves within the story - and that can be independent of the race/sex/gender/age of the character. If readers identify with a character's situation and/or their behaviour/traits then it is, as far as the writer is concerned, job done. But that doesn't mean that everyone in the book is a white straight man. None of the people in the book have to be white straight men. Or white, or straight, or men. (I have been ticked off by the Daily Mail, no less, for a 'dutifully multicultural' cast of characters in one of my books that the reviewer otherwise enjoyed).

    In a lot of the books I read, it's very much a question of "who do you want to triumph?" That character doesn't have to look at all like me for me to engage with them and live their lives vicariously.
  • Being a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied Christian man (albeit a fat one one approaching senility), I can't speak about the presentation of minority persons in fiction, except to repeat what I have heard others say, risky as that may be. It's not so much they want a fully fleshed-out character in a genre that doesn't call for same, but rather they want to have no false notes. Women who live and act strictly for the pleasure of the men in the story will make female readers of my acquaintance hurl the book against the wall. Black people who are nothing more than a stereotype will elicit a similar response in my black friends. Wheelchair users who are pitied and shown as resentful or envious of able-bodied persons, ditto (mutatis mutandis). And so on.
  • GwaiGwai Epiphanies Host
    @Doc Tor, You can still answer about portrayal of white straight cis able dudes. I suspect you all are portrayed accurately regularly mind, but I did not mean to say that only the right people's views were desired.

    And I completely agree with what you say. However, I would say the problem with potrayal is when the character who is otherwise very interesting and appealing to me as a reader regularly distracts me because they are very wrong in on way. For instance, if an otherwise very appealing heroine is very insecure about herself I will get tired of it. (Annoyingly common in certain kinds of books, by the way.) And if the author seems to think her constant insecurity is related to her gender, I will be annoyed with the author and their heroine.
  • Hitchcock was famous for getting you to identify with unsavoury characters, as in Psycho, but this is probably implicit in certain film techniques. I am sure that novelistic technique can do like wise, Camus' The Outsider often being cited.
  • I get that. That there are a lot of white straight cis able dudes in literature means that I will identify with at least some of them. Lots (the action adventure guys who take punishing amounts of damage without harm while simultaneously sweeping the love interest off their feet and into bed) I don't.

    The Bonds and the Bournes are compelling in an atavistic way, but none of that is 'accurate', and that's another thing to bear in mind - accuracy is overrated, and archetypes abound.

    Interesting about 'being wrong in one way'. That's very much in the eye of the reader - an insecure character is an insecure character. Certainly if all an author's female characters are one-note insecure, or all the male characters are one-note competent, then there's a problem relating to a lack of imagination.
  • BroJames wrote: »
    Add ‘past middle age’ to your list and that fully enumerates my disqualifications for answering your question.

    But I am interested to know how the answer might vary according to where on a spectrum between ‘plot driven’ and ‘character driven’ a work might fall.

    My impression of some genres, of which SF is one, is that they have a tendency to be more plot driven, and therefore less dependant in well-drawn characters resulting in a greater tendency towards stereotyping.
    One can write a thoroughly described character and still include stereotypes. The easiest, and less problematic,¹ way for a white person to write a black character is to write a white one and describe them as black.² The problem comes in when the writer tries to write particular black cultural elements into the story. This is more difficult to do authentically than many seem to think. Despite physically fitting in better than you, I would have difficulty writing an authentic character from south-central Los Angeles, because I have not lived that culture. I haven't more than a vague clue of what entails an authentic black South African experience. And, despite living with my mum for much of my life and visiting her childhood home, I'm not sure I could pull off a character from there. Not without help.
    Being black is more than colour.
    One can, of course, do a Star Trek and erase meaning from skin colour. Humans have moved past colour mattering and Earth has one culture. Though the ST culture is pretty much white, western European, so...

    ¹There is the other problem of more white authors writing black characters than black authors being allowed to.
    ²The other issue is why is the character a particular colour and what role do they play? Token inclusion, background characters or characters who drive the plot?
  • lilbuddha wrote: »
    One can write a thoroughly described character and still include stereotypes. The easiest, and less problematic,¹ way for a white person to write a black character is to write a white one and describe them as black.²

    ¹There is the other problem of more white authors writing black characters than black authors being allowed to.
    ²The other issue is why is the character a particular colour and what role do they play? Token inclusion, background characters or characters who drive the plot?

    I'm not sure if you're recommending writing white characters and calling them black, or holding it up as problematic. If the latter you're absolutely right, at least according to black friends of mine who hate that with a passion.
  • Gwai wrote: »
    It's also about having multiple points of view. As a Caucasian person, I think N.K. Jemisin, who is African American, portrays white people* in the Broken Earth trilogy who are very right. It's a negative view of us and it's not a complete view, but nothing is complete and it's accurate. I know those people she talks about even if I don't identify with them. They are very real and not usually portrayed that way.

    *metaphorical, but the metaphor is very clear
    Thing is, we live in a white, male society so one doesn't have to be white or male to get a decent understanding of what white and male are. Not necessarily a complete understanding, but as you note most characters are not complete.
    Writing within said cultures, the default is authentic white male. Nuance is a different thing, such as writing to specific male issues. That requires a much better understanding.
  • asherasher Shipmate
    Alexander McCall Smith might be an interesting study here...white man writing with real love about life in Botswana, with a strong female lead. A bit saccharine for my taste but wiki suggests no backlash on appropriation or representation grounds.
  • RooKRooK Admin Emeritus
    edited February 14
    Gwai wrote: »
    It's also about having multiple points of view. As a Caucasian person, I think N.K. Jemisin, who is African American, portrays white people* in the Broken Earth trilogy who are very right. It's a negative view of us and it's not a complete view, but nothing is complete and it's accurate. I know those people she talks about even if I don't identify with them. They are very real and not usually portrayed that way.

    *metaphorical, but the metaphor is very clear

    I'd like to reinforce this. The brilliant way in which N.K. Jemisin made the viewpoint of her various characters accessible has made me re-evaluate the standard by which I consider such things. Like re-appreciating the way LeGuin subverted racial ideas in her Earthsea series. Or the fun default-female assumptions of Anne Leckie in her Ancillary series.

    Honestly, despite being cis-het white male, there has never been a literary character that made me feel as understood as Martha Well's "murderbot".
  • DoublethinkDoublethink Shipmate
    edited February 14
    [Cis-female-gay-white-partially-privately-educated-with-3-chronic-health-conditions-that-do-not-amount-to-a-disability-no-partner-and-no-children here; (the credentials bit is somewhat cumbersome)]

    I have never read a novel and thought, ‘oh that protagonist is really like me’ - or read a novel and thought ‘if that character can do x, so can I’. It’s not really what I read fiction for. Mostly I read genre fiction, I like puzzle mysteries, sci fi and fantasy. I like the escapeism, thought experiments and living vicariously in very different lives.

    I work professionally in mental health, so I spend most of my working life thinking about other people’s minds - fiction helps me do this and I can’t say I find genre fiction notably lacks an emotional life to its characters. (Though maybe I just fill in the gaps without consciously noticing.)

    All that said, I think - unless told explicitly told otherwise - I tend to subconsciously assume characters are white. I only notice I’m doing this when it is made obvious later in the narrative they are not. I most recently remember this happening whilst reading Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London series. (The main protagonist is a young black police officer called Peter Grant.)
  • asherasher Shipmate
    Ben aaronvitch is a great example of white writing black, very well received across the board. Cant wait for the new one this month
  • In a somewhat brain-twisting moment, someone commented that if there was a film of my Mars books, Idris Elba would be great to play the protagonist, Frank.

    They're not wrong. He would be brilliant at it. I'm pretty certain I never mentioned Frank's skin colour.
  • asher wrote: »
    Ben aaronvitch is a great example of white writing black, very well received across the board. Cant wait for the new one this month

    I get a little bit squeamish about this, although I know it's not meant in any way other than positive. Everyone I write is *not me*. I'll have a few things in common with the characters I write, and most things not, and that goes for almost every writer. Ben (we share a publisher) is a Londoner, writing about London things. He is demonstrably not black, but also not a copper, not young, and has no experience with eldritch tentacled horrors.
  • I have never read a novel and thought, ‘oh that protagonist is really like me’ - or read a novel and thought ‘if that character can do x, so can I’. It’s not really what I read fiction for.

    The juxtaposition of these two sentences seems almost a non sequitur. Have you never found something in a book you weren't searching for?
  • asherasher Shipmate
    edited February 14
    Doc Tor wrote: »
    asher wrote: »
    Ben aaronvitch is a great example of white writing black, very well received across the board. Cant wait for the new one this month

    I get a little bit squeamish about this, although I know it's not meant in any way other than positive. Everyone I write is *not me*. I'll have a few things in common with the characters I write, and most things not, and that goes for almost every writer. Ben (we share a publisher) is a Londoner, writing about London things. He is demonstrably not black, but also not a copper, not young, and has no experience with eldritch tentacled horrors.

    Thanks for this, I would agree with what you seem to be saying. And the reader decides on how well it is done.

    Bit of a clash of gears, but I'm somehow put in mind of Patrick Stewart in Extras, talking about the secret of his acting....'I pretend I'm someone else'

    Cheers

    Asher
  • Laurence Olivier to Dustin Hoffman: "Why don't you just try acting?"

    And yes, it's for the individual reader to decide if it's done well or not. Their opinion, of the same book, the same character, is rarely consistent.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    I have never read a novel and thought, ‘oh that protagonist is really like me’ - or read a novel and thought ‘if that character can do x, so can I’. It’s not really what I read fiction for.

    The juxtaposition of these two sentences seems almost a non sequitur. Have you never found something in a book you weren't searching for?

    Yes. But what I meant, I suppose, was that I won’t tend to pick a book *because* it has a white lesbian protagonist; nor would I usually feel I’d had a bad reading experience because there wasn’t someone in a book that I closely identified with. For example, I have read and reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. I have very little in common with any of the main characters, male or female.
  • Penny SPenny S Shipmate
    edited February 14
    The first fiction books I read were Macdonald's Curdie ones. Note I say Curdie, not the Princess ones. I am pretty sure that I identified with Curdie rather than the Princess, because he did more things.
    Then, after my mother's response to my going home from Sunday School and saying the teacher had said there were stories in the Bible about someone with the name of one of the boys - David "There's a book with stories about someone with your name, too, and its older", I discovered Homer. In a child's version, of course. Over the years I have occupied the narrative of Odysseus, Telemachus, Athena, Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, Menelaus, and, of course, Penelope. And yes, they are all white. But Homer did a good job of making his characters people who could be recognised as sharing something with the reader/listener, regardless of whether they were male or female. Or in any sense human - he even makes Polyphemus someone to grieve with. (I left out the shades of the dead - them too.)
    And what about Shakespeare? He does polyprotagonists of all sorts. Am I unusual in not demanding someone like me in what I read?
  • @Doc Tor: "(I have been ticked off by the Daily Mail, no less, for a 'dutifully multicultural' cast of characters in one of my books that the reviewer otherwise enjoyed)".

    If it was the Mail that might mean no more than one of your characters had a sun tan....

    It's odd how these debates are framed. Back in the 80s, I think, I was having a discussion with a friend about George Bernard Shaw. I commented that all his female characters were basically men in skirts, and she told me that was a sexist observation as it implied there was a fundamental distinction between the way men and women behaved. (I've no idea if she still thinks that, but I haven't heard such a view expressed for ages.)
  • Thing is, you all do have characters like you. White is the default into which most literature you read is set. Not having anyone who ticks any of your boxes, or at least not fully, is a different thing.
    When characters are written that hit some of one's boxes, they often poorly connect. And not always because the author doesn't care.
  • Are you certain that everyone here is white?
  • lilbuddhalilbuddha Shipmate
    edited February 14
    In this conversation, to the point I made that statement, yes.
  • lilbuddha wrote: »
    Thing is, you all do have characters like you.

    Being white is, uncontroversially, just one aspect of a character. That they are white doesn't mean they are anything "like me". We share a skin colour. Yay.

  • @Doc Tor: "(I have been ticked off by the Daily Mail, no less, for a 'dutifully multicultural' cast of characters in one of my books that the reviewer otherwise enjoyed)".

    If it was the Mail that might mean no more than one of your characters had a sun tan...

    None of the characters (except the Big Bad) were white English.
  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    edited February 15
    I don't think I've ever looked for anybody to identify with--my reading is fairly far-flung and getting more so, and I'm okay with that. But what does bug me is when someone writes an emotional reaction that is just.plain.wrong. for the character. The one that sticks out in my mind comes from Orson Scott Card's Wyrms where the protagonist is raped by a tentacley creature thing, described vividly (sorry, it's been years since I read it, and even so not long enough!), and then, after a short fight, kills the thing and has no more emotional reaction than to declare "We are all victors here" or some such nonsense. WTF? I can't think of anyone, male OR female, who wouldn't be a basket-case after being raped by a tentacle monster. But I can't help linking this case to his other fiction such as the Ender series, where the women (such as Valentine) seem to be nothing but talking heads on legs. No emotional lives to speak of--virtually no development--which is weird, because he does manage that with at least some of his male characters. But the women might as well be cardboard cut-outs.

    I've given up reading him. It just annoys me too much.
  • ECraigRECraigR Shipmate
    I don’t read much prose fiction, but when I do and have, I don’t ever identify with characters in a full sense of the word. I’ll see certain personality traits, quirks, or responses as being similar to my own, but I’ve never read a character and thought, “This is me!” Perhaps this is one of the reasons I don’t go in for prose fiction as much. I read more poetry, and representation and identification are a bit different there, I think.
  • Doc Tor wrote: »
    lilbuddha wrote: »
    Thing is, you all do have characters like you.

    Being white is, uncontroversially, just one aspect of a character. That they are white doesn't mean they are anything "like me". We share a skin colour. Yay.
    No human can truly write an alien. Why? Because we are human. Being human is part of our being and shapes the way we think. Culture is not different to that. We can learn other cultures to varying degrees, but our native culture shapes our thinking. It affects everything, it permeates everything we do. What you are illustrating is blindness to being part of a group, blindness to similarity. When a group of people who share a culture get together, they see the differences, but they ignore much of the sameness.
    Why can you read a story about an alien civilisation understand the characters? Because it was not written by aliens, it is written by humans and what you share as a human allows you to comprehend.

    Being of the same culture is way more than one aspect of a person.
  • @Lamb Chopped
    I no longer read Card because he is a virulent homophobe and racist.
  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    edited February 15
    I suspect you've read more of him than I. Or else have looked at interviews or something, which I have not. I noped out fairly quickly after a few* books--there was a really bitter aftertaste to pretty much everything of his I read.
    * for me this is roughly a month
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    asher wrote: »
    Alexander McCall Smith might be an interesting study here...white man writing with real love about life in Botswana, with a strong female lead. A bit saccharine for my taste but wiki suggests no backlash on appropriation or representation grounds.

    @asher, the novels of Alexander McCall Smith do offer an interesting example. He was a British-Zimbabwean lawyer who produced textbooks on criminal law and taught for many years at University of Botswana, knew a great deal about the police, law courts, detective agencies and prison services in Gaberone. The initial success of fictional detective Mma Precious Ramotswe in 1998 surprised the author and almost everyone else. He is someone I think of as being like Peter Mayle on Provence: his highly romanticised, funny and warm-hearted depiction of Gaberone is irresistible. Far more readable than, say, Bessie Head's brilliant difficult novels about a troubled teacher and refugee from apartheid being ostracised and persecuted by the Serowe village she has tried to make her home.

    Would McCall Smith's fictions be as welcome now that publishing is more polarised and concerned with cultural appropriation? Are some genres taken less seriously than others? Do readers need a realistic version of a fictionalised society in order to enjoy their read?

    A librarian (retired British expat from Dorset) at our local library here in South Africa was asked by a black learner to recommend fiction from Scotland. She suggested Lillian Beckwith's The Hills Is Lonely (1959) because 'it is so funny and true-to-life, with all these quaint Scottish crofters who live quite primitive lives.' She said it was an uplifting book, no sordid or depressing stuff about poor old Scotland. So no James Kelman, AL Kennedy or Alasdair Gray then.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    edited February 15
    Doc Tor wrote: »
    In a somewhat brain-twisting moment, someone commented that if there was a film of my Mars books, Idris Elba would be great to play the protagonist, Frank.

    They're not wrong. He would be brilliant at it. I'm pretty certain I never mentioned Frank's skin colour.

    Be careful what you wish for. What Hollywood mash-ups do to update characters and trends (with an eye on the Oscars) can take many bizarre turns. We'll give Frank/Idris a costume from Black Panther and turn the planet into Nova Wakanda! No wait, why not a black lesbian Frank, a one-breasted Amazon? She could SAVE those eldritches with a plant-based diet and they'd all fly around in a messianic Avatar loop with grateful smiles! Just lose the tentacles.
  • I saw a TED talk by an author from Africa who as a child wanted to write, so she wrote books about white people doing suburban English things, because that's what she thought books were about. All the books she had were about that, so that must be what books are about. The idea that she could write a book about people like herself came much later, and as an epiphany. I believe it is important that we have books about all kinds of people, not only, but certainly partly, because children deserve to see people like them, in whatever ways they themselves decide is like them, in the books they read.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    mousethief wrote: »
    I saw a TED talk by an author from Africa who as a child wanted to write, so she wrote books about white people doing suburban English things, because that's what she thought books were about. All the books she had were about that, so that must be what books are about. The idea that she could write a book about people like herself came much later, and as an epiphany. I believe it is important that we have books about all kinds of people, not only, but certainly partly, because children deserve to see people like them, in whatever ways they themselves decide is like them, in the books they read.

    Do you mean Chimamandie Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria? Anyone who has grown up in a former British colony in Africa has to study English literature in order to pass O-levels and A-levels and get into university. It isn't that 'all the books around her' were about white people so much as that her own country's literature was not on the syllabus or in school libraries. The Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah has said she knew the Moors around Wuthering Heights better than her suburb in Harare. Those of us who discovered Dambudzo Marechera or Tsitsi Dangarembga or Ngugi wa Thiong'o had to read them on our own alongside what was being taught. Our own writers were irrelevant and unimportant. That's how colonialism erased identity and context.

    And often neither black or white students in Britain have had a chance to study Caribbean literature or Ghanaian poetry or anti-colonial memoirs from Kenya. That's one reason why UK writers who want to portray characters from different backgrounds and cultures often struggle to get it right, because they've grown up in a cosy white bubble that shows them little of the diversity of modern Britain, or what went wrong with Empire.
  • Barnabas62Barnabas62 Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host, Epiphanies Host
    edited February 15
    The dialogues between the envoy Genly Ai (straight black male) and Estraven (ambisexual), and the comments by the observer Ong Tot Oppong (straight female) on the effect of ambisexuality on social order in Gethen (Winter) (Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness"), are I think remarkable stimulus to helping us all to think outside the box of our own cultures and genders. A part of Le Guin's remarkable writing skills is her portrayal of eminently believable characters in alien worlds. Genly Ai (the straight black male) experiences his own people as alien after time spent living in the ambisexual societies on Winter for a couple of years.

    Personally, I think there is no substitute for engagement with folks who are different, but literature can both expose and loosen the grip of often unconscious stereotypes on our thought patterns.
  • lilbuddha wrote: »
    @Lamb Chopped
    I no longer read Card because he is a virulent homophobe and racist.

    From what I gather the poor chap is completely screwed up about his own sexuality* and projects his insecurities outwards in deeply damaging ways.

    *his descriptions of his own desires are big flashing pink arrows pointing to, as they say, "so far in the closet he's having tea with Mr Tumnus" though in OSC's case he's more "sat cuddled up on the sleigh munching turkish delight".
  • I think part of the problem is the tendency to see members of a minority as representatives *of* that minority, regardless of whether they want to or not.

    (A few years ago a Muslim comedian on Have I Got News For You was asked something about Islam, and he began: 'Well, before I came on here, I spoke to all the other Muslims, and we agreed that ...')

    I think if you have a black character, but you are not trying to write a book about 'the black experience in the UK' or similar, then you should try to discourage this tendency, or at least not actively encourage it.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    I saw a TED talk by an author from Africa who as a child wanted to write, so she wrote books about white people doing suburban English things, because that's what she thought books were about. All the books she had were about that, so that must be what books are about. The idea that she could write a book about people like herself came much later, and as an epiphany.

    I have heard black authors make an opposite (but in no way mutually exclusive) complaint - that publishers can grasp the concept of a black author writing about colonialism in Kenya or discrimination in Dulwich, but the idea that they might want to write about, say, eighteenth-century Venetian courtesans totally boggles their mind ...
  • lilbuddha wrote: »
    Doc Tor wrote: »
    lilbuddha wrote: »
    Thing is, you all do have characters like you.

    Being white is, uncontroversially, just one aspect of a character. That they are white doesn't mean they are anything "like me". We share a skin colour. Yay.
    No human can truly write an alien. Why? Because we are human. Being human is part of our being and shapes the way we think. Culture is not different to that. We can learn other cultures to varying degrees, but our native culture shapes our thinking. It affects everything, it permeates everything we do. What you are illustrating is blindness to being part of a group, blindness to similarity. When a group of people who share a culture get together, they see the differences, but they ignore much of the sameness.
    Why can you read a story about an alien civilisation understand the characters? Because it was not written by aliens, it is written by humans and what you share as a human allows you to comprehend.

    Being of the same culture is way more than one aspect of a person.

    I think much of this is true, but also culture and colour are not the same thing. In many ways Charlotte Bronte’s life and experience, or William Shakespeare’s would be very much more alien to me than the perspectives of the colleagues and patients of various ethnicities I work alongside every day.

    I am white British, but I didn’t grow up in a white majority country.
    I am white British, but I don’t work in a white majority team.
    I am white British, but no one else on my street is.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    edited February 15
    Ricardus wrote: »
    mousethief wrote: »
    I saw a TED talk by an author from Africa who as a child wanted to write, so she wrote books about white people doing suburban English things, because that's what she thought books were about. All the books she had were about that, so that must be what books are about. The idea that she could write a book about people like herself came much later, and as an epiphany.

    I have heard black authors make an opposite (but in no way mutually exclusive) complaint - that publishers can grasp the concept of a black author writing about colonialism in Kenya or discrimination in Dulwich, but the idea that they might want to write about, say, eighteenth-century Venetian courtesans totally boggles their mind ...

    Yes, good point. I like this quotation from Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, (House of Stone), currently resident in the US.

    "Seriously guys, I’m an Iowan as well as a Houstonian (in addition to being a Bulawayan and a Zimbabwean). It is written in black & white in the papers—I am an Iowan writer and a Houston writer. I embrace all these identities and no one can take them away from me. It is too late."
  • lilbuddha wrote: »
    Doc Tor wrote: »
    lilbuddha wrote: »
    Thing is, you all do have characters like you.

    Being white is, uncontroversially, just one aspect of a character. That they are white doesn't mean they are anything "like me". We share a skin colour. Yay.
    No human can truly write an alien. Why? Because we are human. Being human is part of our being and shapes the way we think. Culture is not different to that. We can learn other cultures to varying degrees, but our native culture shapes our thinking. It affects everything, it permeates everything we do. What you are illustrating is blindness to being part of a group, blindness to similarity. When a group of people who share a culture get together, they see the differences, but they ignore much of the sameness.
    Why can you read a story about an alien civilisation understand the characters? Because it was not written by aliens, it is written by humans and what you share as a human allows you to comprehend.

    Being of the same culture is way more than one aspect of a person.

    Yes, and I don't think this makes the point you think it does, in that you contradict yourself.

    My culture is human. Because it is human, it allows me (and all of us, if we want it) to understand, and communicate, human ideas and concepts, even while reading and writing about alien civilisations. You're right in the sense that our shared humanity is what allows us to comprehend. You're wrong in thinking that I (or anyone else) can't think outside of our culture.

    (My last book was 1st person POV from an emotionless alien AI. I'm not sorry.)
  • Representation in literature (and other media) is something that kidlit authors and illustrators talk about All.The.Time. We hear the stories about why it matters first-hand from other writers. We hear about it from the parents who gave our books to their kids. We have piles of research that demonstrates why it matters. It matters for

    We know that children don't just need books. They need books with characters that serve as mirrors, in which they can see people like themselves and their families and their communities. And they need books that serve as windows, through which they can see people and families and communities that are not like their own. They need it, because they are learning how to understand the world, and they are learning how to understand their own place in that world.

    That need might not be as strong for adults, but the need still exists.

    And it's super annoying when books get it wrong. It's like when the detective talks about a 24 karat wedding ring, and you don't know whether he's stupid, or the author is, and suddenly you no longer trust either one. Or when the murderer adds lye to someone's wine, and the person drinking the wine doesn't realize it's adulterated until they collapse from the poison. Getting facts wrong in your stories ruins your stories for the people that know you're wrong.

    And when the facts that you get wrong are important facts about your characters, whether it's the experience of a white woman, or a Cherokee child, or gay man, or a person who uses a wheelchair, you ruin the story for the people who actually know what it's like.
  • Ricardus wrote: »
    I think part of the problem is the tendency to see members of a minority as representatives *of* that minority, regardless of whether they want to or not.

    (A few years ago a Muslim comedian on Have I Got News For You was asked something about Islam, and he began: 'Well, before I came on here, I spoke to all the other Muslims, and we agreed that ...')

    I think if you have a black character, but you are not trying to write a book about 'the black experience in the UK' or similar, then you should try to discourage this tendency, or at least not actively encourage it.
    There is no one black experience in the UK. But who we are directly affects how we write. It cannot help but do. And out background sets up the world in which we write.
    If one is writing generic characters, then background is irrelevant. But if one is writing a more complete character, than background is important. It isn't representing "the black experience" anymore than writing a white character is representing the white experience. It is about writing an authentic black character.

  • Ricardus wrote: »
    mousethief wrote: »
    I saw a TED talk by an author from Africa who as a child wanted to write, so she wrote books about white people doing suburban English things, because that's what she thought books were about. All the books she had were about that, so that must be what books are about. The idea that she could write a book about people like herself came much later, and as an epiphany.

    I have heard black authors make an opposite (but in no way mutually exclusive) complaint - that publishers can grasp the concept of a black author writing about colonialism in Kenya or discrimination in Dulwich, but the idea that they might want to write about, say, eighteenth-century Venetian courtesans totally boggles their mind ...
    A white author has a blank cheque to write in any colour, culture or time. A black author gets a provisional check to write narrowly within her/his own colour and culture. That is when they are even allowed through the door.
  • lilbuddha wrote: »
    Doc Tor wrote: »
    lilbuddha wrote: »
    Thing is, you all do have characters like you.

    Being white is, uncontroversially, just one aspect of a character. That they are white doesn't mean they are anything "like me". We share a skin colour. Yay.
    No human can truly write an alien. Why? Because we are human. Being human is part of our being and shapes the way we think. Culture is not different to that. We can learn other cultures to varying degrees, but our native culture shapes our thinking. It affects everything, it permeates everything we do. What you are illustrating is blindness to being part of a group, blindness to similarity. When a group of people who share a culture get together, they see the differences, but they ignore much of the sameness.
    Why can you read a story about an alien civilisation understand the characters? Because it was not written by aliens, it is written by humans and what you share as a human allows you to comprehend.

    Being of the same culture is way more than one aspect of a person.

    I think much of this is true, but also culture and colour are not the same thing. In many ways Charlotte Bronte’s life and experience, or William Shakespeare’s would be very much more alien to me than the perspectives of the colleagues and patients of various ethnicities I work alongside every day.

    I am white British, but I didn’t grow up in a white majority country.
    I am white British, but I don’t work in a white majority team.
    I am white British, but no one else on my street is.
    But you are white British, it is the background to whatever you experience. See MaryLouise post about how that affects even black people in black countries.
    That isn't to say you cannot learn the culture of those you live and work with, but that white British culture permeates more than you might realise.
  • Doc Tor wrote: »
    lilbuddha wrote: »
    Doc Tor wrote: »
    lilbuddha wrote: »
    Thing is, you all do have characters like you.

    Being white is, uncontroversially, just one aspect of a character. That they are white doesn't mean they are anything "like me". We share a skin colour. Yay.
    No human can truly write an alien. Why? Because we are human. Being human is part of our being and shapes the way we think. Culture is not different to that. We can learn other cultures to varying degrees, but our native culture shapes our thinking. It affects everything, it permeates everything we do. What you are illustrating is blindness to being part of a group, blindness to similarity. When a group of people who share a culture get together, they see the differences, but they ignore much of the sameness.
    Why can you read a story about an alien civilisation understand the characters? Because it was not written by aliens, it is written by humans and what you share as a human allows you to comprehend.

    Being of the same culture is way more than one aspect of a person.

    Yes, and I don't think this makes the point you think it does, in that you contradict yourself.

    My culture is human. Because it is human, it allows me (and all of us, if we want it) to understand, and communicate, human ideas and concepts, even while reading and writing about alien civilisations. You're right in the sense that our shared humanity is what allows us to comprehend. You're wrong in thinking that I (or anyone else) can't think outside of our culture.

    (My last book was 1st person POV from an emotionless alien AI. I'm not sorry.)
    I did not say that you (or anyone else) cannot think outside your culture. I'm pretty sure I've said it is possible to do so.
    But you are a white male British human and every bit of that colours your thinking. Every bit of that filters your perceptions of other cultures. Not understanding this will inhibit processing other people's experiences. The less a problem one thinks understanding other people is, the less they likely actually understand.
  • MaryLouise wrote: »
    Do you mean Chimamandie Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria? Anyone who has grown up in a former British colony in Africa has to study English literature in order to pass O-levels and A-levels and get into university. It isn't that 'all the books around her' were about white people so much as that her own country's literature was not on the syllabus or in school libraries.

    Did you see her talk? She wasn't talking about O-levels or A-levels, she was talking about when she was a child, and the books "around her" were the books in her own home.
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